The intriguing article in the NY Post, “From Mullet to Math Genius after a Concussion” documents how brain damage from a severe concussion brought out an acquired savant quality in a previously ordinary individual. He sees fractals, geometric imagery; pi, etc. He has a grasp of arcs and light and triangles.
I propose an explanation for savantism that corresponds to autism as well. It is, however, the opposite of conventional neuro-scientific thinking. As I proposed in the post "The Brain Is NOT a Computer Stuck on Top of a Body", the development of our brains operates as fractals themselves. Loops of brain mappings link to complex loops of brain mappings forming incredibly complex loops of brain mappings. As these exponentially link up, they create higher and higher levels of symbolic form. Our consciousness operates from extremely high levels of symbolic form. It does so by the energy and attention saving device of cortical top down processing. This is the efficient way the human cortex operates. Top down processing allows us to bypass all the lower levels of brain organization that underlie and compose the top down symbolic form. The lower levels of form are mapped and exist in the brain. They just get bypassed in ordinary top-down functioning.
Language is an example of high level symbolic order that demonstrates this brain shortcut. Consider the word “swim.” It represents and stands for the complex activity and experience of swimming. However, from the word “swim,” I don’t get wet, I don’t kick my feet, I can’t get splashed, and I don’t need a towel. It reduces the whole thing to a four-letter word. The circuits of circuits that map “swim” are the operational unit that creates the word. “Swim” is an symbolic abstraction for a huge complex of information that allows me to communicate, in shorthand, to you. In “Psychotherapy of Character, The Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain” I deconstruct seeing rocks under water. This results in peeling off the top down processing. I then see all the perceptual components. I no longer see solid stone forms. Instead I see a series of broken lines, fragmented by the moving, wavy water surface. There are fragmented moving blocks of color and shadow and light. The surface itself becomes an ever-changing array of light reflecting off the angles of the moving ripples. I don’t see the top down processed image of rocks underwater anymore.
Jason Padgett’s savant qualities come from brain damage that destroyed this cortical top down functioning, leaving the still very high levels of symbolic order that is operative below it. He no longer operated with intact top down processing. He literally saw the next layer down of fractal mapping loops in his brain. His savantism came from brain damage that disrupted his capacity for top down processing. My best understanding of how autism is created is that it is the result of brain damage from oxygen deprivation very late in pregnancy, when cortical top down capacity is forming. These individuals are unable to process the highest level of symbolic forms. [I am talking about real autism, not today’s over diagnosis and incorrect diagnosis]. I have treated a number of these individuals. When you see the real item, you will not confuse it. These children. not surprisingly, have trouble with language because that high level of symbolic order is specifically interfered with by the top down deficit. Autistic individuals commonly have some savant qualities because they operate on the lower levels of symbolic order – whether it is musical savantism, or mathematical visualizing, or memory lists like the Rain man. They live on this other level of consciousness. Yes there can be a kind of talent, but it is not really so-called genius. And they cannot function and operate in regular life, which requires an intact capacity for top down functioning which they cannot encompass. This includes the maintenance of symbolic persona representations in the play of consciousness. The play is composed of personas who relate together by feeling with scenarios and plots, set designs, and landscape. This is how consciousness is organized so that people live the human life of thriving, surviving, creating a culture, social relations, propagating and raising children. Autistic people lack the capacity for top down processing and they cannot relate socially to whole, emotional, 'other' people.
Conventional neuroscience mistakenly views this as mysterious genius caused by flooded neurotransmitters that change the plasticity of the brain. This sounds like a plausible neuroscience idea, but there is no basis for it. Similarly, it is conventional neuro thinking that the brain is an experimental scientist who makes complex calculations and refines them experimentally – like charting distance, weight, velocity of movement etc. But this is the opposite of the truth. This is backwards. The brain routinely bypasses what it has already learned by efficient shortcut of top down processing. It sees and goes directly to already established top down information. When top down processing is damaged in savantism, it goes to the underlying loops of brain mappings, which ordinary people bypass in the service of functioning in the world. The individual array of these high end maps create the various ‘talents’ of savants. These maps have correlations which can result in synesthesia; or memory lists like the Rain Man; or auditory memory mathematical loops for musical savants who cannot talk or function at all. We all have underlying cortical mappings that exist with incredible memory connections. The key here is that the ordinary brain is structured to bypass these mappings in the service of top-down processing. These lower maps are exposed with damage to the cortical top down capacities.
In fact all of our talents are actually forms of savantism, to varying degrees, in ordinary people. The unique evolution of each individual brain is different. Artists have some non-top down functioning in the 'seeing' world. Ordinarily top down processing masks the visual deconstructed correspondences. Musicians have the feeling-mathematical correspondences with sound. This is savantism in everyday life. This also explains why a ‘thinking cap’ that temporarily immobilizes the brain mimics top down brain damage and generates temporary savant qualities.
Robert A Berezin, MD is the author of “Psychotherapy of Character, the Play of Consciousness In the Theater of the Brain